Government funding for a domestic tourism campaign that asked “Why would you want to go abroad” came under sustained attack at the Abta Travel Matters conference in London yesterday.

Travel Republic chief executive and Abta board member Kane Pirie told tourism minister John Penrose: “It is not the role of government to take taxpayers’ funds to waste on a campaign against the outbound industry.”

Pirie described the campaign as “£5 million frittered on an egotistical whimsy” and said: “I don’t see it as your role to move consumer spending from one area of industry to another.”

He added: “It was needlessly negative.” Pirie said: “You should spend the money where it matters, on people checking passports.”

Kuoni vice-president of distribution and operations Derek Jones agreed, saying: “The campaign set out specifically to discourage people from travelling overseas.”

Penrose said: “I hear what you’re saying. But if you are making a general attack on government involvement, presumably we should not be marketing the UK abroad either.

“We spend £100 million a year as a nation promoting the UK to foreigners. Foreign countries spend vastly more marketing themselves to the UK. Until now we have done nothing [domestically]. I find it hard to understand how this is distorting the market.”

Penrose added: “We will do a full commercial analysis and if it turns out to have been an egotistical exercise, we will say so.”

VisitEngland chief executive James Berresford defended the campaign, telling the conference: “The advert had a heavy dose of humour.

“We matched all government money with private sector investment. It was £5 million to encourage an important market when other tourist boards spend £50 million or more in the UK and the airlines more.

“The campaign is nowhere near over, we are in it for three years, and it will grow the domestic market.

He added: “Unless we protect the domestic industry there won’t be a thriving international market because we won’t have the product.”